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Grow food.” That’s the motto of the Victory Garden Initiative, a nonprofit organization founded by Gretchen Mead, a former social worker who is a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee.

This year’s Victory Garden Blitz tapped the power of 300 volunteers (including many of Mead’s fellow UUs from FUSM) to install nearly 300 raised garden beds across Milwaukee.

“People are actually owning it,” she said, “and that lends itself to longevity and neighborhood development.” Correction 12.3.12: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story did not reflect that Mead’s application was part of a larger application by the city of Milwaukee, and provided an incomplete name for the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge.

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Earlier this fall she was chosen from 100 applicants to have her idea included—along with many other city-designed initiatives—in Milwaukee’s application to the national Bloomberg Mayors Challenge, which awards $1 million to $5 million to the best, boldest solutions to problems faced by cities across America.* Mead’s proposal, titled the Post-Industrial Urban Homestead Act, is to rededicate foreclosed properties to growing food and to give families the chance to become homesteaders—an innovative idea for a city plagued by approximately 6,000 empty lots and 3,000 empty homes. “I think I had developed that in a very nondeliberate way as a child because of the way my family lived, but I never reflected on it until later on in life.” When she first moved to Milwaukee a few years ago, she felt disconnected again.

“The idea is to pair foreclosed homes with empty urban land, and after someone farms the land for five years, the home becomes theirs,” Mead explained. After a year and half without gardening, she became what she jokingly calls a “closet gardener,” sneaking tomato plants into a front yard that was surrounded by food-free, manicured lawns.

Mead’s passion for urban agriculture and environmental justice has its roots in her childhood in rural Illinois, where her family filled the dinner table with finds from local forests as well as the bounty of their garden. These days, Mead’s vine-covered brick house is easy to pick out: Her small yard is filled with raised beds that overflow with tomatoes, kale, spinach, carrots, beans, asparagus, broccoli, onions, garlic, squash, cherries, blueberries, and more.

“My parents weren’t necessarily deliberately reverent about food,” she said. My mom grew up as a farmer and my dad was interested in hunting, and that was how we provided a sub-economy for our family.” Later in life, Mead drifted from gardening and her “real food” roots and ate what she describes as the standard American diet for five years. “It’s the one that looks alive,” Mead said with a laugh.

Among those attending were Tim Atkin MW, who writes for The World Fine Wine, OLN, and a number of other publications and regularly appears on BBC1s Saturday Kitchen, Matthew Jukes from the UK Daily News, and a group of eight Asian writers, trade and educators.

All the wines were 2007 or older with the oldest being a 1998 Vidal Joseph Soler Cabernet Sauvignon.

The format was relaxed and fun, with the speed dating conclusion just one of the quirky events on offer.

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